Prologue: Bob Johansen's Blue Box (1983-84)
I don't remember the exact day that I found Bob Johansen's copy of the old Blue Box edition of Dungeons and Dragons. It was some time when my father was stationed in Korea in 1983-84. Bob worked with my dad at Osan AFB and his wife would babysit me. I'm not sure what it was about the game, I know I didn't understand the vast majority of the concepts at the moment, but it hooked me. Maybe it was because I had gotten a copy of The Hobbit for my 8th birthday (to which my aunt countered with the entire Chronicles of Narnia), maybe it was because I was always a pretty imaginative kid (you have to be when you move around so much and don't have a steady group of friends), I don't know. Every time I'd be over at Bob's, I'd bust open his boxed set and try to wrap my brain around this game. Well, until Bob moved the box. I guess he didn't appreciate an eight year old rifling through his stuff.
Chapter One: The Only Game In Town (1984-1987)
We were staying in a hotel in Stroudsburg, PA on April 20th, 1984. It was my birthday and we were up visiting my grandparents in nearby Delaware Water Gap. I opened one of my presents and it was the Red Box edition of Dungeons & Dragons--Basic Rules: Set 1. All of those bits and pieces I had trouble understanding made sense now, thanks to the simpler and gradual way the game was presented in that edition. I don't even think I bothered to name my fighter that you make when you take on your first dungeons found in the Player's Guide. I took him to a cave where a goblin stood, guarding a chest in a 10x10 room, ready to be killed with one blow. He met Aleena, the friendly cleric and first ally who would die horribly at the hand of Bargle, the first villain I ever encountered in the game. I was hooked.
I quickly moved on to making my own character, an elf with the highly original name of Legolas. Initially my parents looked to play with me, but as they realized the game wasn't really to their tastes, they moved on to leave me to my obsession. My friends in Fort Meade, MD were quickly recruited to the cause. I've completely lost touch with all of them and I often wonder if any of them still play.
At some point, my gang was recruited by some older guy who offered to DM (Don't worry, my parents checked him out, he was legit-he was a friend of a friend's parents). It introduced me to the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons rule set. I made a cleric, her name was Aleena, continuing my highly imaginative character naming process. She eventually made her way to about 4th level before the game fell to the wayside. To this day, I still don't remember the DM's name. I think I only ever referred to him as DM.
Playing at DM's house opened my eyes to two things--The AD&D system, which offered a wealth of choices beyond what I had experienced, and the World of Greyhawk, still my gold standard for a fantasy role playing setting. It would be a few years before I'd end up with a copy of the original Greyhawk boxed set, although I was able to find the "big three" AD&D rulebooks.
Chapter Two: New Books, New Ideas, New Games (1987-1992)
My dad got out of the Air Force in 1987 and we moved back to Stroudsburg, PA. This was a great thing for a young gamer, because Stroudsburg was home to The Encounter, my first Friendly Local Gaming Store. I walked in, saw walls of comic books and shelves of role playing games. To a kid who only knew Toy Stores and AAFES Shoppettes as avenues for these items, it was Nirvana. Every cent I could spare went to not just D&D books, but OTHER GAMES! Heroes Unlimited and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were the first distractions I had from D&D, but I was still loyal.
In early high school, I ran a D&D 2nd Edition game. The basis of the game was the Ruins of Adventure module based upon the classic Pool of Radiance computer RPG. When we completed that, I ran the party through the legendary I6: Ravenloft. Not long after that, my group grew apart. I got involved in Track & Field, some of them got in legal trouble, and some just went separate ways.
I played in a group in the middle of high school, where I had an elven fighter/magic-user named Aquilon Numari. I think I got him up to about 6th level before the game fell to the wayside. Also falling by the wayside was Dungeons and Dragons. By the early nineties, games like Call of Cthulhu, Shadowrun, and (I am embarrassed to say) Vampire: The Masquerade overtook D&D among my friends and I. It would be a LONG time before I'd play D&D again.
Chapter Three: A New Look and the Boredom of War (2000-2004)
Well, the bulk of the nineties had me giving most of my money to Chaosium, White Wolf, and Palladium. A dear, late, friend John, leaked to me the playtest edition of the new D&D 3rd Edition. It blew my mind. The new D&D took all of the things I had liked about other systems (particularly skills) and merged them with the consistency and (relative) balance of D&D. I never found a regular group to play with in Pennsylvania, but I would occasionally run a game for my little brother, who was a teenager by the 2000s.
It wasn't until, of all things, the first wave of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, that I would find regular gaming. In that first year, there wasn't a whole lot going on in the way of entertainment. We didn't have AFN or Internet in the abundance we have it now. Nowhere near as many people had personal laptops. It was a situation perfect for roleplaying. I ran a pretty light-hearted and crunchy campaign for my teammates, which opened the door for a full-blown Living Greyhawk campaign throughout the bulk of 2004.
As enthusiastic about D&D as I was, when I moved to Arizona, I found Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying and my D&D books started to gather dust once again.
Chapter Four: Desperation and Genuine Enjoyment (2008-present)
I was done with D&D. Wanted no part of it. Warhammer 2nd Edition was perfect for my needs. Even when I saw my brother's copies of D&D4e, I was skeptical. It looked like a video game. Not impressed.
I had been trying unsuccessfully to find games in Colorado Springs. I saw that the COS RPG Meetup Group had a very robust Living Forgotten Realms game going on. I decided to try it, if anything, just to play SOMETHING. A few games in, I was hooked. I was amazed by the balance, the speed, the tactics involved. The splatbookiness of it all kind of bugged me, but the ability to counter that with a relatively affordable D&D Insider membership made up for it.
D&D 4th Edition isn't the only game I ever want to play these days, but I do enjoy it. I've come to terms with the strengths and weaknesses of it all. I'll still be looking to run and play other games, but I love having D&D 4e as an option.
Epilogue: In Hindsight
I wonder sometimes if I'd still be as interested in D&D if I found a different box in Bob Johansen's house. I know I wouldn't have suddenly become a jock or a band kid if I didn't. I was on my way to geekdom, come hell or high water. I wonder if I would have found D&D regardless or if I would have found one of the other games out there (RuneQuest, Traveller, etc...) and had those become my love affair. The two games I have truly loved throughout my gaming life have been D&D and Call of Cthulhu. I never stopped with Call of Cthulhu, but that's because it never changed on me the way D&D did. D&D changed to stay relevant as the industry leader in role playing games, and that probably explains why I've had a much more tempestuous relationship with it. 26 years later, I'm still playing it. That says a lot.